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Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Where Are We Now?
By Kathleen McChesney
According to the first executive director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, the Church has started to address the clergy sex-abuse crisis, but it must do more.


The Promise and the Meeting
Following Up
A Crisis Far From Over
Ashamed and Sorrowful Is Not Sufficient
Fulfillment of the Promise
Related Articles


IN MAY 2009, Ireland's Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, led by Justice Sean Ryan, issued the findings of its nine-year investigation into Catholic Church-operated schools and reformatories. This sad and scathing 2,600-page report, covering a 60-year period from 1936 to the present day, details physical, emotional and sexual child abuse that was pervasive within many Catholic institutions. The Church had established these institutions to educate students and provide care for orphans, unwanted or seemingly incorrigible children and delinquents.

Although it was impossible to determine accurately the number of victims and perpetrators, the Commission reported that over 800 individuals were identified as being responsible for the harm done to thousands of young people entrusted to their care. Hundreds more victims have come forward since the report was issued to describe their abuse for the very first time.

Though the revelations of abhorrent acts detailed in the report were not surprising, especially to those abused, the magnitude of the abuse and the ability of the institutions to sustain a prominent role in providing health, welfare and educational services on behalf of the government of the Republic of Ireland is nearly incomprehensible. That this prolonged evil was allowed to continue unabated for decades reflects the lack of internal moral leadership and discipline within the institutions; the absence of valid external, impartial oversight of these institutions; and the unwillingness of Church hierarchy or law-enforcement officials to pursue legitimate complaints.

More important, acts of this nature are so far removed from the character of the Catholic Church that their mere existence seems to have evolved from some deeper, darker, anti-Catholic netherworld.

The record of similar offenses in the United States parallels the recent findings in Ireland. The report Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Clergy in the United States: 1950-2001, prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, confirms that more than 10,000 children suffered abuse committed by 4,392 Catholic priests during that time.

Although the Catholic Church in the United States was not responsible for all of the child welfare services in this country as it was in the Republic of Ireland, American Catholic schools and social services were similarly admired for their charity and morality. The personal devastation that resulted from the abuse and the erosion of confidence in the clergy and the Church in both countries is, tragically, the same.

The Promise and the Meeting

Nearly one year before the issuance of this distressing report in Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI made his first visit to the United States as pontiff. He was met by large, joyful crowds wherever he went, treated to the pomp and circumstance worthy of a key world leader and heralded by throngs of Catholics (and many non-Catholics) with the mantra "Christ Is Our Hope." The man who represents the Catholic faith to the world conveyed the spiritual leadership and sincerity befitting a follower of St. Peter.

At the official welcoming ceremony on the White House lawn, thousands of men, women and young people appeared to be emotionally moved by the moment and what it meant to be a Catholic, a Christian or a simple believer in a spirit greater than oneself.

Despite the wonder of the moment, the sex-abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in the United States loomed like the elephant in the room. Journalists accompanying the pope on his way to America had already broached the subject with him, curious to know how he perceived the crisis and especially the harm that had been done to children.

Pope Benedict admitted to being "deeply ashamed" by the abuse that had occurred and committed that "we will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future." He also pledged that the Catholic Church would now select its priests more carefully, exclude pedophiles from the priesthood and bring justice and healing to victims.

Nonetheless, thousands of survivors of clergy sexual abuse, their family members and other concerned Catholics hoped for a more direct acknowledgment of the crisis that befell the Church. To that end, the pope did not disappoint.

In his address to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and at his public Masses in Washington, D.C., and New York City, the pope spoke of the pain caused by the offenders. During a private meeting in the chapel of the apostolic nunciature in Washington, D.C., he demonstrated deep personal concern for five people abused by priests from the Archdiocese of Boston.

One of those five recently described the experience to me: "Being able to speak with the pope and to bring my pain to the table of the man who is responsible for leading the Church allowed me to let go of the burden of abuse that I had been carrying with me for years. If other Church leaders would demonstrate a similar willingness to truly and compassionately listen to victim-survivors like me, more of us may finally become, as I did, the person that God intended me to be, instead of the shell I was living in before I knew my voice was finally heard."

Although not all victims will respond to outreach in this way, and only a few will ever meet with the pope, the profound impact of this type of sincere interaction can surely be replicated by others who represent the Church, and bring healing to those who seek it.


The excitement of the pope's visit has long since passed, but the memories of the emotional time he spent with survivors, the inspiring Masses, ecumenical meetings and pastoral events remain vivid. Equally clear is the recollection of his promise to do "what is possible" to prevent abuse—a commitment that has, unfortunately, not been fully demonstrated.

A few actions have been taken thus far, such as the changes recommended during the apostolic visitation of the seminaries in the United States, and the renunciation of the public ministry of Father Marcial Maciel of the Legionaries of Christ. These actions may help to reform the clerical settings in which sexual crimes were able to occur. But there is much more that can and should be done, especially in addressing the root causes of the problem.

Many, like me, expected that this historic papal visit, which highlighted the strength and universality of the Catholic Church, would be followed by substantive actions to address more fully the problem of sexual abuse within the Church, wherever it occurs. I was hopeful that the pope's words meant that we might soon see the removal of the structural, institutional and psychological barriers that caused thousands of priests to offend God and children in these aberrant ways.

As the former executive director of the USCCB's Office of Child and Youth Protection, I am certain that the crisis of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy is far from over. Bernie McDaid, a 52-year-old painting contractor abused by a priest from Boston while in his teens, spoke directly of the issue to Pope Benedict XVI in the spring of 2008.

"You have a cancer growing in your ministry and you need to do something about it," he told the pope.

McDaid's words ring true when we hear that incidents of sexual abuse are occurring in other parts of the Catholic world where there are no guidelines for preventing abuse, responding to allegations or publicly reporting the number of confirmed incidents and offending clerics removed from ministry. The protective Catholic environment that we hope for does not yet exist in all places.

Crisis in the Church: Our Search for Healing

Kathleen McChesney: Helping the Bishops Get It Right

Preventing Clerical Sex Abuse: How Are the Bishops Doing?

In the United States the number of allegations of sexual abuse committed by priests and deacons that have taken place during the past five years is quite small and appears to be diminishing. But it is very likely that there are young people who remain unsure or afraid of accusing a respected member of the clergy of sexual assault. Moreover, hundreds of adults continue to come forward each year, describing their abuse as children or teenagers in years past, as they have recently done in Ireland.

Clearly, there is much more that can be done to become a better, safer Church. For instance, through their efforts, bishops in English-speaking countries have created model practices for effectively dealing with abuse cases that can be emulated in other countries, particularly if encouraged to do so by the Roman curia.

Abuse victims and their families are appropriately receiving more compassionate care than in the past. And offending clergy are being removed from ministry more quickly and openly. Background investigations, abuse-awareness programs, enforced standards of conduct and fair and legal structures for the investigation of abuse allegations adopted by dioceses have increased public confidence in the Church's ability to deter, if not fully prevent, future bad acts.

Representative bishops and child-protection professionals from dioceses in English-speaking countries have been meeting annually in recent years to share strategies and best practices. Church leaders from non-English-speaking countries such as India, Ghana, Chile and Italy have also attended these meetings and acknowledged that some of their clergy also harmed children in the past. Like their counterparts, several of these dioceses have already initiated policies and procedures intended to put an end to these offenses.

During the 2009 meeting of these experts, Bishop Blase Cupich of the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, described the issue of sexual abuse to Catholic News Service as "a human issue—a human problem."

Another participant, Jesuit Father Joe Mathias, secretary of the Indian Bishops' Commission for Clergy and Religious, said, "We are all agreed that you need a comprehensive plan for prevention, support and healing."

Yet, despite the increasing number of countries where clergy abuse cases—both past and present—have come to light, there is no universal, holistic child-protection approach offered by the Holy See.

The larger Church's response to the allegations and proven instances of abuse committed by some members of the clergy and religious life has been characterized as too little, too late. And while the approach in many English-speaking countries has evolved to include proactive measures aimed at preventing future abuse, the Vatican remains in a basic reactive mode.

Furthermore, there has been no public attempt by the Holy See to identify and eliminate the root causes of the abuse.

The ongoing study of the "Causes and Context" of the crisis of sexual abuse being conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, sponsored by the USCCB, and the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in Ireland are significant steps toward determining how individuals committed to a life of holiness could commit such sins. Support of these initiatives by the Vatican would convey a sincere attempt to destroy the "cancer" where it exists within the ministry. The John Jay study is scheduled for completion in December 2010.

Father Thomas Doyle, a United States Dominican priest, canon lawyer and advocate for victims, is skeptical of the Church's efforts to address the problem of sexual abuse within its ministries.

In responding to the findings of Ireland's Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, he wrote in National Catholic Reporter, "The Church cannot and will not fix itself. The very reality of the systemic abuse in the Irish institutions (and elsewhere as well) reveals a deep disdain for people by those charged with leading the Church."

Although these strong words incorrectly characterize all Church leaders as contemptuous of others, they do reflect the perception held by some survivors of clergy sex abuse that many Church leaders are quite satisfied with the way in which they are dealing with the worldwide crisis of sexual abuse, and that they have no intention of doing anything further to eradicate the problem.

Being ashamed and sorrowful is obviously not sufficient remorse for every person whose life has been torn asunder by the violent act of a priest or a deacon. Pope Benedict XVI's words and actions during his critical visit to the United States left many of these men and women wanting more. Some had optimistically anticipated that Church leaders would be directed to take personal responsibility for their administrative actions or inactions that had enabled known offenders to abuse other children.

Others hoped for an official recognition of the crimes that had been committed against them, including publicizing the identities of their perpetrators and removing their names from places of honor. These victims are still waiting for actions or, worse, they have given up hope for visible, effective change.

If there is a disconnect between the desire of Pope Benedict XVI and what Catholic Church leaders have done to protect the young and the vulnerable, I strongly suggest learning from the wisdom of the victims and the experiences of bishops and child-protection professionals who have made some progress in addressing this "human" and universal problem by doing the following:

• Reaffirm the need for Church leaders to meet with victims and their family members, and to listen to their experiences with compassion and grace.

• Establish an ad hoc team or office to provide guidance to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and other appropriate congregations in identifying, addressing and preventing abuse worldwide. This team would be led by a partnership of laypersons and clergy from key countries.

• Commission a global study to determine the extent of abuse of children and vulnerable adults perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy in areas where that information is unknown.

• Support academic research on the causes of sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy.

• Conduct a symposium of subject matter experts and Church leaders to design and implement procedures likely to eliminate the causes of sexual abuse.

• Establish a universal set of verifiable standards for entrance to the priesthood.

• Establish a standard curriculum regarding interpersonal conduct and sexual activity for all seminarians.

• Monitor the efforts of all dioceses worldwide to provide compassionate care and justice to those abused, as well as to those accused.

Preventing sexual abuse in Catholic communities must be an ongoing priority for all Catholic leaders in the future. Pope Benedict XVI's outreach to victims should be replicated by his brother bishops wherever someone has been harmed; realizing, of course, that being ashamed and sorrowful is not enough for the victims who wait for "what is possible." But it can be a beginning.

Kathleen McChesney was the first executive director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection from 2002 to 2005. She retired from the F.B.I., where she was the third-highest executive, after 24 years, and currently is the owner of Kinsale Management Consulting.

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